BANGALORE, India – In a training room in Bangalore, Nidhi Goyal shows a model of a woman’s anatomy to a group of chatty, but shy, young women.
“These are the three openings in your body,” Goyal says, introducing each woman to the model individually. One by one, she takes a woman’s hand and runs it over the urethra, vagina and anus of the rubber replica. Each woman then traces her fingers over the 3-D model, feeling the shape of each part for herself.
All of the women in the workshop are blind or visually impaired. Goyal, a gender and disability rights activist, works for Point Of View, a nonprofit organization working to amplify the voices of marginalized women through theater, media and exhibitions.
In their 20s and mostly single, the participants are either learning or teaching computer skills at Enable India, an NGO that provides education and training for people with disabilities.
The majority of the women went to specialized blind schools and have never received any sexuality education. Discussions about their bodies, sexual pleasure, harassment, abuse, domestic violence, sexual orientation and relationships – some of the subjects covered in the workshop – are all novel for them.
“The vagina is where your sexual partner will insert his penis for intercourse,” Goyal explains. A few chortles emanate from the audience.
“Take a look,” she says, passing on a model of the scrotum and penis.
The next round of the session is about covering a banana with a condom, which elicits resistance from the women. But Goyal insists they do the exercise. “If you don’t touch it, how will you ever know if a man is wearing a condom?” she asks.
Limited Sexuality Education
Sexuality education is not common in Indian school curricula, and the subject is banned in many states. This squeamishness around teaching people about sex is amplified when it comes to those with disabilities.
“They are seen as vulnerable people who need protection and not as individuals with the same desires as others,” says Rupsa Mallik, director of programs and innovation at CREA (Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action), a feminist human rights organization. Provision of resources for sexuality education often takes a backseat to the education and employment issues people with disabilities must deal with.
That’s a problem, because women with disabilities need this information not only to believe in their right to be sexually active, but also “to be able to navigate the public domain better and handle any kind of harassment or abuse,” Mallik says.
Human Rights Watch has found that disabled women across the world are three times as likely to be raped, physically abused or sexually assaulted. Among blind women, the most common form of violence includes inappropriate touching by someone who helps them cross the road. “At the workshops, I’m told, it happens to them all the time,” Goyal says.
In 2012, Point of View launched a website, the first Indian online resource on sexuality and disability. The workshops were launched in July 2015, and are being conducted two to three times a month for people with various disabilities, including hearing impairment and cognitive and developmental disabilities, in seven cities including Pune, Mumbai and Bangalore. The workshop methodology differs in terms of accessibility and context for each disability.
Fighting Internalized Stigma
Goyal – who lost her sight at the age of 21 – feels that the desire to control the choices of women with disabilities is infantilizing, but all too common. “Everyone seems to know what they want without even asking them,” she says.
That’s perhaps what leads to the feeling of inequality, low self-esteem and under-confidence she sees in workshops. Many fear rejection.
“I lost interest in marriage after losing my vision,” says Jyoti Achari, one of the participants who lost her sight at 20. “My parents never discussed my marriage, thinking no one would like to wed their blind daughter.”
“Most women I meet have internalized their blindness as a stigma and are even perpetuating it,” Goyal says. This is why many of the role-plays at the workshop focus on equality.
“Don’t think a nondisabled guy has done a favor by marrying you,” Goyal repeats during the sessions. At the same time, she emphasizes the importance of not having unwarranted expectations as a disabled person. “Don’t expect undue assistance from your partner after marriage; instead, be thankful for any help you get.”
Having attended the workshop, Achari says she feels more confident of her knowledge on issues such as consent and intercourse. And her ideas about marriage have changed too – she met her fiance at a computer skills training program she was conducting, where he was a trainee. She says his confidence in her abilities as an independent woman swept her off her feet.
After taking the class, “I think I’m better prepared to navigate my relationship with the guy I’m about to marry,” she says enthusiastically.